TIFF Report: Family Ties Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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[TIFF information page.]

Call it horribly misleading marketing for an excellent film. To look at the promotional art for Kim Tae Yong’s Family Ties you would think it was a straight ahead pleasantly innocuous bit of slapstick. This leads me to wonder aloud once again what exactly Korean film execs think they’re accomplishing when they package and present their films – and frequently very good ones – in intensely misleading ways. Because there’s not a scrap of comedy in Kim’s film, no wackiness to be found anywhere. What this really is is a delicately constructed, cross generational look at the emotional consequences of broken families, its careful observations captured in a beautifully written script and universally strong performances through a truly artful lens. Kim has crafted a quiet gem of a film here, one that is worlds away from the image the suits with the check books have opted to saddle it with.

Kim tells his story in three parts, the first two standing alone with the third drawing them together.

In the opening act we begin with Mira, a quiet and withdrawn woman who lives alone and runs a small restaurant. Her life is bland but comfortable until one day without warning her wastrel brother Hyung-Chul arrives on her doorstep after five years of complete silence. Further complicating things Hyung-Chul has gotten married during his absence and expects to live at Mira’s house with his new wife, Mu-Shin. Complicating things further Mu-Shin is old enough to be mistaken for Hyung-Chul’s mother. And complicating things still further, just as they seem to be settling in to some sort of acceptable rhythm Chae Hyun, the young daughter of Mu-Shin’s ex-husband’s ex-wife (you follow that?) also soon arrives at the door step having traveled there by herself despite being all of six or seven years old, guided by the address Hyung-Chul left so that she could write him. Something has to give.

Act two tells the story of Sun Kyung, a young woman estranged from her mother and seemingly angry at the world, blaming her mother’s ongoing affair with a married man for driving her father away and ruining her life. Sun Kyung has spent years training in Japanese language and culture with an eye to taking a job overseas to escape the influence of her family. But life is not as simple as that and Sun Kyung’s planned escape is disrupted by news that her mother is dying of cancer and her growing feelings for her half brother Kyung Suk, an innocent in all of this soon to be left alone.

The third act leaps ahead several years and Kyung Suk and Chae Hyun, now both seemingly in their late teens or early twenties have become a couple. And this is where the meat of the film really kicks in. While both of the opening acts were beautifully observed and performed it is here that we see the lingering effects of the two children’s upbringing, Chae Hyun desperate for acceptance while Kyung Suk sees nothing but betrayal lurking around the corner, scars visited upon the two of them by their parents that they will have to overcome to find peace.

Family Ties is a film about details, a film about the little things and quiet moments. Kim has created a range of full blooded characters here, characters who are often uncomfortable to watch but who are also instantly recognizable as very real living and breathing human beings. The performances are excellent across the board and the camera work is stellar, the film’s colors over saturated just enough to lend an otherworldly beauty to the proceedings while still leaving a very realistic environment. It’s an experiment in magical realism which while less flashy than, say, Chris Doyle’s work on Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, is no less effective.

The Korean DVD release – other than the already mentioned horrible cover – is fantastic. The transfer captures the film in its proper ratio with an excellent transfer that lets you fully appreciate the lush cinematography. Audio comes in 2.0 and 5.1 options and the English subtitles are typically excellent. In all it’s an excellent presentation of a little gem of a film, don’t let it pass you by.

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MiloAugust 21, 2006 3:47 AM

Quite a lovely story indeed, and the colours in some shots are breathtaking. Good to see Kong Hyo Jin in a great film for once! It took me a while to figure out who was who in the the third act and how it all fit together, but when it all "clicked" it was such a wonderful moment (maybe it's even best to go in as unspoiled as possible).

Todd BrownAugust 21, 2006 7:53 AM

Yeah, Milo, I had that exact same moment and it was lovely ... debated not pointing it out, but then I saw they actually have a family flow chart on the back cover that makes it clear so I figured if they're gonna spoil it anyway it doesn't really hurt to point it out ...

jon paisAugust 21, 2006 11:45 AM

I was going to pass up on this one precisely for the reasons you cited -- the marketing of this film led me to believe it was just a silly comedy with little or no substance -- thanks -- i just placed my order...

Gilles C.August 22, 2006 11:31 AM

I had exactly the same feeling about everything of this movie. How I was moved by the third part, when I understood the true meaning of this artwork ; how I was surprised by the movie after seeing the really bad marketing.

About this marketing, have you seen the dasepo girls ads ? and the movie ? The ads just show it like a little silly teen movie, but really it has a strong power inside that you don't see in a teen movie (and a teen movie 15+ rated...)

Koreans just don't know how to sell well their movie without lying about it i think. That's really to bad.

RahatAugust 22, 2006 2:23 PM

Todd, very glad you gave a nod to this. It indeed is now my favorite Korean film of the year (seen 10 so far). The delicateness of the film combined with the nuances of family life are just breathtaking. Absolutely wonderful. From now on, I should really just give Moon So-Ri the benefit of the doubt and watch whatever she's in. I mean, even Bewitching Attraction had its valid points.